Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Shakespeare’s Actors
By Brander Matthews (1852–1929)
From ‘Shakspere as a Playwright’

IT would be interesting if we could also ascertain the names of the original performers of the important parts in all Shakspere’s plays. Here our information is pitiably scant. There were in those days no printed playbills in the theatre itself; and there were no theatrical criticisms in the newspapers, for the sufficient reason that there were no newspapers. When a play was published it rarely contained a list of the characters carrying on its plot; in the First Folio such a list is appended to only two or three of Shakspere’s pieces, the ‘Winter’s Tale’ for one and the second part of ‘Henry IV.’ for another. And even when the list of characters is given there is no indication of the names of the performers who played the several parts.  1
  Yet even if our information is scant, it is not wholly lacking. From an elegy written upon the death of Richard Burbage we learn, what we might have inferred without this positive assurance, that he was the performer of Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, and another poem of the period authorizes us to believe that he also played Richard III. In the First Folio ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the fourth act the stage-direction reads “enter Peter,” whereas in the second and third quartos the stage direction reads “enter Will Kempe”; and we have no right to doubt that Kemp was the original actor of Peter. In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ a similar slip supplies us with two similar identifications of an actor with a part: in the fourth act, when the watch enters, the speeches of Dogberry and Verges are assigned to Kemp and Cowley, the names of the performers themselves carelessly appearing in place of the names of the characters they were impersonating. And earlier in the same play, in the second act, the stage-direction reads, “enter Prince, Leonato, Claudio, and Jacke Wilson,” which is evidence that Wilson was the performer of the part of Balthasar (who sings “Sigh no more, ladies; sigh no more”). Another slip of the same kind informs us that the servant who enters in the third act of the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ was played by an actor known in the theatre as “Nick.”  2
  It may be noted that Will Kemp resigned about 1598, and that his place was taken by Robert Armin, who seems to have been connected with the company off and on for at least ten years. In the dedication of a play of Armin’s published in 1609, he discloses the fact that he had impersonated Dogberry; it is likely, therefore, that he succeeded to all of Kemp’s characters when he joined the company after Kemp had left it.  3
  In the quarto edition of Ben Jonson’s ‘Every Man in His Humour,’ printed in 1603, there is a list of the actors who appeared in this play: “Will. Shakspeare, Aug. Philips, Hen. Condel, Will. Slye, Will Kempe, Ric. Burbage, J. Hemings, Thos. Pope, Chr. Beeston, and John Duke.” The play had been produced by the company to which Shakspere belonged in 1598, and the list given in 1603 is probably an incomplete roster of the company as it was in 1598, since it includes Kemp, who seems to have withdrawn shortly after Jonson’s comedy was first performed. When Jonson’s tragedy of ‘Sejanus’ was published in 1605, the final page tells us that “this Tragaedie was first acted in the yeere 1603 By the King’s Majesties Servants” and that “the principal Tragaedians were Ric. Burbadge, Aug. Philips, Will. Sly, Joh. Lowin, Will. Shakes-peare, Joh. Hemings, Hen. Condel, Alex. Cooke.” Mention must be made also of the fact that the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ (acted in all probability in 1592) had among its performers Burbage, Philips, Pope, Condell, Cowley, Sly, Duke, and Bryan.  4
  In the First Folio we have a list of “the names of the Principall Actors in all these Plays” arranged in two columns:
  William Shakespeare    Samuel Gilburne
Richard Burbage    Robert Armin
John Hemmings    William Ostler
Augustine Phillips    Nathan Field
William Kempt    John Underwood
Thomas Poope    Nicholas Tooley
George Bryan    William Ecclestone
Henry Condell    Joseph Taylor
William Slye    Robert Benfield
Richard Cowly    Robert Goughe
John Lowine    Richard Robinson
Samuell Crosse    John Shancke
Alexander Cooke    John Rice
  But this list is not absolutely complete, since it omits the names of John Duke, Christopher Beeston, and John Sinkler. Also to be noted is the fact that it contains the names of actors probably not in the company at the same time; Kemp and Armin, for example. It may be doubted whether the company ever numbered as many as twenty-six, even at its fullest strength. The usual number was probably not more than fifteen. A single actor would often appear in two or more of the less important parts. The suggestion has even been made that one actor, possibly Wilson, thus “doubled” Cordelia and the Fool.  6
  Apparently it was about 1590 that Shakspere joined the company, when certain of its leading members had already been associated for some years. It had been organized before the Burbages built the first Theatre in 1576, the materials of which were used in the erection of the Globe twenty years later. It bore various titles, being called Lord Strange’s men, Lord Derby’s and Lord Hunsdon’s, and the Lord Chamberlain’s company; and finally, in 1603, after the accession of James, it was authorized to call itself the King’s Players. In London, it acted not only at the Theatre and the Rose, and then at the Globe, but still later also at the Blackfriars. It went on frequent strolling expeditions in the provinces; and it may have given performances in Stratford when Shakspere was still a resident in his native town. But although it altered its name from time to time, and although it acted in different places, it retained its membership for a score of years after 1590 with comparatively few changes. It seems to have been well chosen at the start and to have been skillfully recruited as vacancies were caused by retirement or by death. Its half dozen or half score chief members, the “sharers” or associated managers, who hired the boys and subordinate performers, were not only good actors, they were also men of good character bound by ties of friendship as well as of interest. Its leading actors were partners in the management and in the very considerable profits of the enterprise. In fact, in its organization, in the qualities of its constituent elements, in its enduring solidarity it bears a striking likeness to the company which Molière brought back to Paris in 1658 and which still survives as the Comédie-Française. Theatrical conditions in London, when Shakspere retired in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, did not widely differ from those in Paris when Molière died toward the end of the third quarter of that century; but theatrical conditions then were very different from theatrical conditions now. To-day, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, there is not to be seen in London or in New York a single permanent company, and in Paris there is but one which is substantially the same year after year.
  Nowadays a special company is engaged for every new play that is produced and for every important revival. To-day there is a vast body of unemployed actors and actresses from whom the manager can select the performers best suited to the several parts of the piece he is about to bring out; and the dramatist composes his play, having in mind special actors only for one or more of the salient characters, knowing that there will be no difficulty in securing fairly satisfactory performers for the less important parts. But in Shakspere’s time, as in Molière’s, there were at call few disengaged performers of merit; most of the available actors were already attached to one or another of the existing companies in London or in the provinces. The dramatist, therefore, composed his play specifically for the members of some one of these companies, perforce adjusting the parts to the performers who were originally to undertake them, and carefully refraining from the introduction of any part for which there was not a fit performer already in the company. What is now known as a “special engagement” was then impossible, because it would not have been profitable, since the company kept all its successful plays in repertory, ready for immediate performance in its own theatre in London and in any convenient hall in the country towns when it went on its frequent strolling excursions. In London fifteen to twenty new plays were produced by a company every season; and no one of them had more than fifteen or twenty performances, scattered through the year, and never consecutive.  8
  It has been pointed out that Molière has no maternal love in any of his plays, because his company did not contain any “old woman”; and the elderly females who do appear now and again in his comedies were all of them highly colored so that they could be performed by a male actor, in accord with mediæval tradition still surviving in the French theatre during the seventeenth century. Shakspere, like Molière, composed all his plays for one particular company, that to which he himself belonged. We may rest assured that Shakspere and Molière rarely wrote any part for which there was not a proper performer already in the company. We may feel certain also that Shakspere, like Molière, fitted the characters in his comedies and his tragedies to the special actors for whom he intended them. As the repertory was large and as the program was changed daily, it is probable that a prominent actor was not unwilling now and again to appear in a part of less prominence than his importance in the theatre would warrant; and it may be noted that this was the practice in the famous Meiningen company toward the end of the nineteenth century.  9
  We know very little about the histrionic ability of the members of the company for which Shakspere wrote. We have no record of the manner in which Burbage acted Othello and Lear, or of the method of Kemp in Peter and Dogberry. Yet with the evidence of Shakspere’s plays before us, and with our knowledge of the extraordinary demands they make upon the performers, we are justified in believing that the company must have been very strong indeed, rich in actors of varied accomplishment. We should have the same conviction in regard to Molière’s company, on the sole testimony of his plays, even if we were without the abundant contemporary evidence to the merits of Molière and his wife, of La Grange and Madeleine Bejart. By the fact that Shakspere wrote Othello and Lear and Hamlet for Burbage we are debarred from any right to doubt that Burbage was a great tragedian. The parts that Shakspere composed for Kemp, and later for Armin, may be taken as proof positive that these two actors had a broad vein of humor like that which Charles Lamb relished in Dowton. The swift succession of Portia and Beatrice, Rosalind and Viola, is irrefragable testimony to the histrionic capacity of the shaven lad who impersonated these lovely creatures one after another. A good company it must have been, that for which Shakspere wrote his twoscore histories and comedies and tragedies, filled with superb parts stimulating to the ambition of the actors who were his associates; and it was a good all-round company also, versatile and energetic.  10
  That Shakspere fitted these actors with parts, that he adjusted his characters to the capacity of the performers, that he was moved in his choice of subject by his intimate knowledge of the histrionic capability of his fellow-actors, and perhaps also by their expressed desire for more ambitious opportunities, this is surely beyond question, since we know that it is just what Molière did in his day and just what every dramatist has done and must do. The author of ‘Ralph Roister Doister’ was head-master of Eton; and he put together that piece of boisterous fun-making for the crude acting of his robustious young scholars. Lyly’s more delicate comedies were most of them composed for performance by choir-boys; and they are found to be devoid of any violence of emotion which might be beyond the power of youthful inexperience. What may be observed in the seventeenth century can be seen also in the nineteenth; and the best of Labiche’s farces were not more closely adjusted to the company at the Palais Royal than were the later plays of the younger Dumas adjusted to the incomparable assembly of actors at the Théâtre Français.  11
  Just as Mr. Crummles, having bought a pump cheap, insisted upon the introduction of that implement into the next play which Nicholas Nickleby adapted for his company, so every dramatist is moved, perhaps more or less unconsciously, to utilize the gifts of the actors for whom he is working. If one of them is a trained singer, a Jack Wilson, then he is tempted to write in a part for that performer and so give him one or more songs. This fact was seized by the acute intellect of James Spedding, who once wrote a letter to Furnivall in criticism of the latter’s attempt to classify Shakspere’s plays in chronological order in accordance with the mood of the dramatist at the time when they were written. Spedding insisted that the distinguishing feature of every play “would depend upon many things besides the author’s state of mind. It would depend upon the story which he had to tell; and the choice of the story would depend upon the requirements of the theatre, the taste of the public, the popularity of the different actors, the strength of the company. A new part might be wanted for Burbage or Kemp. The two boys that acted Hermia and Helena—the tall and the short one—or the two men who were so alike that they might be mistaken for each other, might want new pieces to appear in; and so on.”  12
  The vice of the narrowly philosophic criticism of Shakspere, which was so prevalent in the nineteenth century, lies in its consideration of his characters solely and exclusively as characters. They are characters, of course, but they are also parts prepared for particular actors. They form a succession of magnificent parts, making the most varied demand upon these actors. They are parts, first of all, conceived in consonance with their author’s intimate knowledge of the histrionic abilities of his fellow-players, even if every one of them is also a character, subtler and broader and deeper than any mere part needs to be. In devising these parts Shakspere was fitting the performers of the company to which he belonged, even, if he was also availing himself of the opportunity to body forth his own vision of life.  13
  When we have once grasped the significance of the relation of the author and the actor our disappointment is redoubled that we know so little about the various members of Shakspere’s company. Our acquaintance with the career of Coquelin helps us to understand the structure of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ just as our familiarity with the needs of Macready as an actor-manager helps to elucidate the qualities of ‘Richelieu’ and ‘Money.’ But we do not know Burbage and Kemp, Heming and Armin, as we know Macready and Coquelin. Instead of being able to explain their parts in some measure by their personalities and by their abilities, we are forced to guess at their personalities and their abilities by an analysis of the parts which Shakspere intrusted to them. And here again we are at sea, since we lack detailed information as to the parts they severally performed.
  Yet there are a few things which we may fairly infer, without involving ourselves in the fog of dangerous conjecture. If Burbage was the original impersonator of Hamlet and Lear, of Othello and Richard III., we may assume that he was also the original performer of all Shakspere’s tragic heroes, of Romeo and Richard II., Macbeth and Brutus. Burbage played early in the seventeenth century all the parts which were undertaken toward the end of the nineteenth century by Booth and Irving—with the possible exception only of Shylock, which seems to have been in its author’s intent a serio-comic character, at once grim and grotesque, and which therefore might fall to the lot of the actor who had appeared as Falstaff or else to the habitual impersonator of villains. Burbage left behind him the reputation of the foremost tragedian of his time; and since he was intrusted by Shakspere with these overwhelming characters, one after another, he must have been a great actor, noble in bearing, eloquent in delivery, passionate and versatile. As he grew older, so did the characters which Shakspere composed for him to act, Romeo having been written for him in his ardent and energetic youth, while Lear was prepared later in his riper maturity. After his death, in 1619, his parts seem to have been divided between Lowin and Taylor.  15
  Just as we may feel safe in assuming that Burbage impersonated all Shakspere’s tragic heroes, because we know that he played Hamlet and Othello, so we are justified in assigning a succession of comic characters in Shakspere’s earliest comedies to Kemp because of our knowledge that he appeared as Peter and Dogberry. There is a strong family likeness between Peter and a group of other low-comedy parts, composed at no great interval before or after ‘Romeo and Juliet’—simple figures of fun, mere “clownes,” as they were then called, quick in quips, but lacking altogether the mellower humor of Shakspere’s later comic characters. Since Kemp was the original Peter, it is reasonable to suppose that he was also one of the two Dromios and one of the two Gobbos, and that he appeared either as Costard or Dull in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and either as Launce or Speed in the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona.’ And we can find confirmation for this surmise in the disappearance of this sort of part from Shakspere’s plays after Kemp left the company, to be replaced by Armin. No doubt Armin took over all these earlier parts whenever the older plays were performed; but in the new plays the corresponding characters—Touchstone, for example, the Gravedigger in ‘Hamlet’ and the Porter in ‘Macbeth’—are less frivolous, almost graver in their method. Nowadays the comedian who acts Touchstone also acts Sir Toby Belch, and it is inherently likely that Armin was the original of that unctuously humorous character, although this part may have been cast to the original performer of Falstaff (possibly Heming). There is to be noted in Molière’s plays a curious parallel to this modification of the low-comedy parts in Shakspere’s plays after Armin had succeeded Kemp. Molière composed all his earlier soubrettes, his exuberant serving-maids, for Madeleine Bejart; and after her death, when her place was taken by Mademoiselle Beauval, who had less authority and a more contagious gayety, the soubrettes in these later comedies change in tone to adjust themselves to the different gifts of the new actress.  16
  One other piece of information is also in our possession: the Balthasar, who sings in ‘Much Ado,’ was played by Jack Wilson. From this we may fairly assume that Wilson also appeared as Amiens, who sings in ‘As you Like it,’ and as Feste, who sings in ‘Twelfth Night.’ This assumption is strengthened by the fact that ‘Much Ado,’ ‘As you Like it,’ and the ‘Twelfth Night’ are closely related, having been composed rapidly one after the other. Then, if we choose, we may risk a more daring speculation—that Wilson was also the actor who created a little later the part of the Fool in ‘King Lear,’ since this character is called upon for frequent snatches of song.  17
  In dealing with Burbage and Wilson, with Kemp and Armin, we are on fairly solid ground; that is to say, we are making inferences from known facts. But when we desire to push our investigations further our footing is less secure; yet it is not impossible to venture a little distance in advance. At least, there are a few questions which we may put to ourselves with advantage, even though we may not be completely satisfied by the best answers that we can find. For example, the original performer of Falstaff—Heming or another—was possibly the original performer of Shylock, and probably the original performer of Sir Toby. This creates a likelihood that he had also impersonated Bottom. It is also not unlikely that he was intrusted with the Dromio that Kemp did not play, and also with either Launce or Speed, Costard or Dull. And he seems to be the performer who would naturally be called upon later to impersonate Caliban.  18
  We can also get a little light upon the probable organization of the company at the Globe when Shakspere was a member of it by considering the organization of Drury Lane when Sheridan was its manager and when the stock-company system was in its prime. Indeed, a similar organization is to be observed to-day in the many minor stock companies scattered throughout the United States. The governing principle in Drury Lane and in the modern theatres occupied by stock companies is that every one of the several actors has his own “line of business,” as it is called; that is to say, he confines himself to a certain definite class of characters. When an old play is revived, and even when a new play is produced, the actor is generally able to recognize at a glance the part to which he is entitled. The “leading man” and the “leading lady” expect, of course, to impersonate the hero and the heroine. The “low comedian” is ready at once to undertake the broadly comic character, and the “soubrette” (or “chambermaid”) is equally ready to assume the corresponding female part. The villain falls to the lot of the “heavy man.” The “old man” and the “old woman” naturally assume the more elderly characters. The “light comedy” part is the privilege of one actor, and the “character part” is the duty of another. In a large company there would be also a “second low comedian,” a “second old man,” and soon, besides several trustworthy performers known as “responsible utilities.”
  This organization is efficient, and its influence can be detected very clearly in the English drama until the final years of the nineteenth century, when the stock-company system was abolished in the more important theatres of London and New York. It was not absolutely rigid, of course; and now and again an actor of exceptional power and range did not hesitate to undertake parts not strictly in his own “line of business.” John Kemble, for example, the foremost tragedian of his time, liked to appear in the light comedy part of Charles Surface, a performance which was wittily described as “Charles’s Martyrdom.” His brother, Charles Kemble, the foremost light comedian of his time, had an infelicitous aspiration for tragic characters. But even if this method of distributing the several parts in a play among the several members of the company was not absolutely fixed and final, it was generally acceptable. The departures from the rules were infrequent in Drury Lane under Sheridan; and we have no reason to doubt that they were quite as infrequent in the Globe when Shakspere was writing his plays for its company.  20
  The line of business which any one of Shakspere’s fellow-actors undertook would be the same, of course, whether the play were written by Shakspere himself or by another playwright. Therefore, if we could discover any part played by any one of these actors in a piece not by Shakspere, we might guess at the line of business he was in the habit of playing and thus we might infer that he may have been the original performer of those Shaksperean characters which plainly belong to the particular line of business. Now, there is a little evidence of this sort. We know, for example, that Burbage played Hieronimo in the ‘Spanish Tragedy’; and this would give us warrant for believing that he played Hamlet and Othello, even if we had not more emphatic testimony. We know also that Condell played the Cardinal in Webster’s ‘Duchess of Malfi,’ which is a “heavy” part, a stage villain of the deepest dye. If we may assume from this that Condell was the regular performer of “heavies,” then we may venture to ascribe to him not a few of Shakspere’s villains—Edmund in ‘King Lear’ and, above all, Iago. We may even go further and suggest the probability that he was also the original performer of Don John in ‘Much Ado,’ of the usurping Duke in ‘As you Like it,’ and of the King in ‘Hamlet.’  21
  Unfortunately, we have no clue as significant as this to guide us to a guess as to the original performer of another line of business, very important in Shakspere’s plays—that of “juvenile lead” or “light comedy.” Some of the parts seem to belong to one group and some to another, yet they were probably played by the same actor in Shakespeare’s company, since they are now generally undertaken by the same actor in our modern companies. These are the parts in which Charles Kemble excelled; they are the parts in which Edwin Adams and Lawrence Barrett supported Booth and in which Terriss and Alexander supported Irving. In the tragedies these characters are Laertes, Richmond, Cassio, and Mercutio; and in the comedies they are Gratiano, Claudio and Orsino. And the same actor would logically be intrusted also with Faulconbridge, with Hotspur, and probably with Bolingbroke. These are most of them characters which require for their adequate rendition youth and fire, vigor and vivacity, wit and grace. We may never discover the name of the actor who created these parts, but that they were all of them created by one and the same performer seems highly probable. To those who are familiar with the inner workings of the theatre there will be nothing fanciful in the suggestion that the “tag”—the final speech—of the ‘Merchant of Venice’ may have been given to Gratiano as some compensation to this actor for the early killing off of Mercutio, in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the play which almost immediately preceded the ‘Merchant of Venice.’ In general the tag is given by Shakspere to the most important of the surviving characters.  22
  As to the several boys who were intrusted with Shakspere’s women we are absolutely in the dark. We can see with Spedding that there were in the company at one time two lads who appeared as the comedy heroines, one of them taller than the other; Le Beau tells Orlando that Celia is taller than Rosalind, and Hero is repeatedly called short. To one or another of these boys were committed also Portia and Jessica, Viola and Olivia, Mrs. Page and Anne Page. Mrs. Ford must have fallen to the lot of a third lad, who was later to display his captivating humor as Maria in ‘Twelfth Night,’ having already appeared as the laughing Nerissa in the ‘Merchant of Venice’ and as the giggling Audrey in ‘As you Like it.’ But which of these three boys was bold enough to undertake Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth?  23
  It is not difficult to believe that the Queen Margaret who curses so copiously was impersonated by the young fellow who was soon after to appear as Kate the cursed. What became of this lad, and of the others also, when their voices cracked and they grew to manhood? Probably most of them remained in the company and took to male characters, returning on occasion to the other sex when there arrived a strongly marked part for an “old woman”—a part which did not demand actual youth. One such actor, boy or man, must have created the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the various Mrs. Quicklys in the two parts of ‘Henry IV.,’ in ‘Henry V.,’ and in the ‘Merry Wives,’ and Mrs. Overdone in ‘Measure for Measure,’ characters closely akin in their oily humor.  24
  A few further suggestions may be risked. It seems highly probable that the performer who was the original Slender in the ‘Merry Wives’ was also the creator of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in ‘Twelfth Night,’ of Le Beau in ‘As you Like it’ and of Osric in ‘Hamlet.’ We may also venture the surmise that the actor who created Christopher Sly in the induction of the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ had also created one of the strongly marked comic characters in the Falstaff plays, Nym or Pistol, but more probably Bardolph.  25
  These scattered suggestions may seem fantastic. They are suggestions only, hypotheses which may be verified by further investigation or which may be contradicted by more diligent research. The inquiry here initiated modestly can be pushed further; for example, we have some information as to the actors who personated the chief parts in certain of the Beaumont and Fletcher plays, and a study of these parts may indicate the lines of business they were in the habit of playing and thus point to their possible Shaksperean parts. Such an inquiry is likely to increase our knowledge of the theatrical conditions under which Shakspere worked and to which he had to conform.  26

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.